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The Markaz: Where The Middle East Meets Los Angeles
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The Markaz: Where The Middle East Meets Los Angeles

Picture of Ryland Lu
Updated: 9 February 2017
To many Angelenos (and Americans in general), the Middle East is a distant locale, known primarily from newsclips and soundbites pertaining to conflict. From a modest storefront in Los Angeles’ Mid-City neighborhood, the Markaz (formerly known as the Levantine Center) works to change these misconceptions through providing educational events and resources pertaining to the region’s rich and diverse culture, politics and history.

Founded in August 2001 as the Levantine Center, the Markaz grew out of the “Open Tent Middle East Coalition,” an interfaith group of peace activists and artists focused on dialogue around the Arab-Israeli conflict. Established in the shadow of the September 11th attacks, the Markaz also responded to a need to humanize Middle Easterners against a racist backlash to the attacks.

Despite acquiring a focus on culture rather than on activism and recently undergoing a name change (“Markaz” means “center” in Hebrew, Arabic, Persian and Turkish), the Center continues to serve as a venue for peer-to-peer diplomacy between Angelenos and the Middle East.

Working with a network of Middle Eastern musicians, the Markaz features frequent musical performances. From trendy Turkish rock to fusion jazz to Ottoman-era oud compositions, the center showcases an ecliptic array of musical styles intended to broaden interests and subvert stereotypes of a Middle Eastern “sound.”

Author discussions and film screenings also provide a breadth of information on the region. Such events have featured Saudi Arabia’s first film director and her landmark film Wadjda as well as noteworthy religious scholar Reza Aslan, and have highlighted topics as diverse as the Arab Spring and the history of Afghanistan.

Finally, the Markaz is home to the Sultans of Satire, a troupe of American-born performers of Middle Eastern descent. Their shows poke fun at popular anxiety towards Middle Easterners in America, while offering a lighthearted take on weighty current affairs.

Many evening events serve food for a reasonable price, so you should check the schedule before you attend: the Markaz’s onsite North African chef serves up delicious Middle Eastern entrées and beverages. The mint lemonade is especially refreshing!

When not hosting events, the Markaz offers language instruction in Arabic, Farsi and Turkish (for a fee) and participatory workshops on topics ranging from oral history to drumming. The center also welcomes visitors to browse its on-site library or check out its rotating art exhibit. See the webpage for opening hours.

Comprising a makeshift arrangement of bookshelves behind the Markaz’s event area, the library’s diverse offerings belie its humble appearance. From novels by Salman Rushdie to scholarly texts by Rashid Khalidi, from cookbooks for making tagine to travel guides on Palestine, the library has a book (or movie) to suit anyone’s interest. The library even features a rare collector’s edition of the poetry of Khalil Gibran.

In addition, the work of up-and-coming artists of Middle Eastern heritage periodically adorns the Markaz’s main event space. Past exhibitors include Lebanese-Armenian painter Vahe Berberian and the Los Angeles-based Arabic typographist, Maece Seirafi.

In brief, the Markaz offers a combination of entertainment and education unique for Los Angeles.

Moreover, as an institution dedicated to diversity (why the Markaz bears a regional, rather than national, focus) and to combatting reductionist stereotypes, the Markaz offers a commendable and inspiring vision for the future.